Opinion: Perspective - Content can put media agencies back on track

A headline like the one on page 22 of this week's issue would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

"The Death of the Media Agency"? Pah. It seemed more likely that media agencies would trample creative ones underfoot in their march into the client's boardroom.

There was a time, really not that long ago, when media agencies looked set to dominate the communications world. They started to take the intellectual high ground, investing heavily in research and systems to unlock new consumer insights, not just into media consumption, but into lifestyles, habits and trends: not quite treading on the creative agency planning toes, but getting close.

And as the media landscape became more digital and so more complex, the rising strategic planner became a crux of the whole comms process; the fact that this strategist sat within the media agency gave media an upper hand. Some media agencies even started to talk about adding a creative solution into their offering, tapping into the rich seam of freelance talent.

And through it all, media agency margins have remained robust, well ahead of the creative market. So where did it all go wrong? Well, there are plenty of media agencies who will say nothing has gone wrong, that they are still growing in influence and profitability, that media is still the engine for consumer communications and that the growing fragmentation of media makes the role of the media agency more crucial. All of which is true on paper, and should be true in fact. But media remains at heart a commodity business, pitched for and won on the basis of discounts and guaranteed prices. And winning business on those terms relentlessly undermines media's attempts to move upstream. Nick Emery, Group M's global head of strategy, reckons that this "old" style of media agency is on its knees. "Buying cheap space for clients who then fire you after three years for someone else's cheap space is not sustainable."

So Emery thinks media agencies need to get out of the business of being the middle men and get into content ownership, which they can then work with clients to extract maximum value from. Media agencies are almost uniquely placed to understand what sort of content will work with both consumers and advertisers and, while they are far from having the creative skills to execute that content, there are plenty of potential creative partners seeking out this sort of collaboration.

Now if I was a client, I would be seriously concerned about whether I was being sold a media strategy that best suited the commercial requirements of my brand or the bottom line of my content-owning media agency. But then the sort of client that's paying rock-bottom prices for their media service is hardly in a position to make strenuous demands about quality. And the bigger media agencies could well end up owning or co-owning some pretty enticing content that their clients would be lucky to get access to.

From all of this, the one thing that's clear is that media agencies are as much in a phase of transition as their creative agency counterparts. And while media agencies may have lost some pace over the past few years, demand for quality content is opening up new opportunities that could set them ahead again. Once again, though, it will all come down to the quality of the people driving the business.

Media agencies have been guilty of hiring too many young guns who have little long-term commitment to the business. Unlike creative agencies, which have a healthy proportion of staff who have struggled through creative courses and the hardships of the placement system to secure their place in the agency world, media agencies are too often peopled with swathes of youngsters that don't see advertising as a career for life; staff churn in some media agencies tops 30 per cent and the talent shortage at the strategic end is acute. This is hardly the sort of team make-up that will allow media agencies to realise their ambitions.